Sharing the Joy of Reading

My Favorite Summer Reading Text of the year.

Our English department always required some summer reading.

…and historically, nobody did it.

…Well, OK.  Some students did it.  Some LOVED it!  and many, many more didn’t bother.

Then we got really good: we required students to ANNOTATE the summer reading.

…and again, nobody read the books… except for those few who loved it previously.  For them, we managed to suck whatever pleasure they got from the books from their experience.

For everyone else… well, I saw them sitting in the hallways.  They were flipping through pages, making random marks and writing sporadic, yet convincing notes, like “wow!” and “hmmmmm.”  Once I saw a student copiously flipping through a friend’s book, copying his peer’s pointless marks.

Hmmmmm… Note to self:

Required reading, for students who don’t like to read, is likely to be torture.  Required annotation, when done without direction or purpose, may be the worst assignment ever invented. 

At this point I extend heartfelt apologies to my students from this dark and misguided period of my teaching career.

And then…A better idea!

A couple of years ago the English department got together with the librarians to compose lists of works that would be engaging and interesting for students to read.  We learned an important lesson:  LIBRARIANS KNOW STUFF.  They particularly know about the hundreds of books that are published every year with a young audience in mind.  So this year’s book selection contained many Young Adult titles.  To be honest, I wasn’t sold on the idea at first… but then, I red the summer reading titles with my daughter, and it all made sense to me.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I left our summer reading titles lying around, and one day, my daughter picked up Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.  For an entire July day, her eyes were glued to the text.  Since she liked it so much, I read it the next day.  It was fantastic!  I haven’t been so absorbed in a book since I sailing through The Odyssey on a Labor Day weekend back in the ’90’s.  I found Cline’s story so compelling — and so much fun — that I absolutely couldn’t put it down.  At 2:30 a.m. my dad came down to the kitchen and found me wide awake, reading the final chapter.

“What are you doing up”

“Just have to finish this book.”

I wouldn’t say that my daughter and I conducted a book club meeting, or that I led a literary discussion of the text, or even that I explained all of the wonderful references to ’80’s pop culture.  But we did share the real joy of having entered the world of this book, explored it for ourselves, interpreted it, and shared in the lives of Cline’s characters.  For a summer reading assignment, who could ask for anything more?

And we got rid of the annotation requirement.

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My Senior Speech

Congratulations!  You have just about finished your high school careers.  Your airplane has landed, and we’re on the runway, making the taxi to the terminal.  You may turn on your electronic devices now!

Actually, I’m kidding… I can’t tell you that.   I know that you already had them on, anyway.

And I also know that some of you are likely to peek at your phone at some point during this little talk.  Even though it’s totally riveting.  But I hope that you’ll pay more attention to me as I give this speech than you give to the flight attendant at the end of the trip… especially when I say DO NOT STAND UP UNTIL THE PLANE HAS COME TO A COMPLETE STOP AND THE SEATBELT SIGN HAS BEEN TURNED OFF.

Yes, we’re almost done.  But don’t get up and open the overhead bins just yet.  I won’t, since I’ll be staying on this plane for a bit longer than you.  Nevertheless, your imminent graduation presents an opportunity for me to reflect a bit on my own experience this year.  I hope that you’ll find my observations relevant to your own lives.

As you may remember, this year I finished my 20th year as a full-time educator.  During your lifetimes, I have learned a lot about teaching, and like you, I feel that this last year has represented a kind of graduation for me.  For the past four years, I’ve tried to focus lessons on your knowledge — on helping you to discover and share things about literature an language.  That’s a big shift from where I started — which was focusing on sharing MY knowledge with students.  And while I don’t think that I’ve become truly effective yet, I do believe that I managed to keep my focus on you, rather than on myself.

This year is also a bit different for me, because the classes have large numbers of students who don’t have English as their native language.  For those of you who have been learning English, I’d like to say Thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language.  You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn.  I’m sure that you experienced a lot of challenges during your time here.  To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations!  You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else.  In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example.

For some of you, the experience of English class may still leave you with a fundamental question:  Why do we do this?  For you, here’s is one final attempt at answering it:

All academic study gives us knowledge.  I hope that in English class, you have shared some of the joy that I get from knowing things.  I also hope that other classes have done the same for you.  Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions.  History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going.  The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does.  But what about English?

I believe that Literature is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans:  It shows us how people feel.  Literature gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering.  I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that I find in reading great literature.  As I look back on the year, there are a few moments that shine for me, as I remember conversations with a few of you, where you have shown me that you’ve felt Olivia’s confusion, or Malvolio’s misery — where you have been shocked by the sadness of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam experiences or puzzled through Albee’s social criticism.  If you didn’t, well, I hope that some day you’ll give literature another chance.  I also hope that this class offered something to those of you who didn’t feel the direct benefits of the books.

My biggest hope for each of you is that you see yourself as a contributor — as a person with something valuable to share with the rest of the world.  That’s why I set aside a lot of time for you to develop your blogs, and that’s also why I’ve tried to build a lot of activities that asked you to work together in groups.  Ultimately, I hope that as you move on — as you deplane from this leg of life’s journey — you take with you a sense of possibility, as well as a sense of responsibility.  You have the ability to learn, to accomplish, and to share with others.  As you continue on your journey, you’ll be expected to put that ability to good use.  So make sure that you check around your seats for any personal potential that you may have forgotten about — You’ll definitely need it wherever you’re going.

As I look back on this year, and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other.  I feel privileged to have been your teacher for a year.

Have a great life!


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Address to the Poetry Out Loud Audience, Tallahassee, FL


Thank you, Sandy and Ken, for inviting me to speak at today’s event.  More importantly, thank you for hosting an event that has continued to for both my brain and for my heart over the past six years.  The annual drive up here has become a favorite milestone of my annual school calendar, and the weeks leading up to this event always include moments that remind me of why I love to be a teacher.

Ken asked me to speak about the value of Poetry Out Loud for teachers:  Well, as the Poetry Out Loud web page will tell you, this activity is great for students.  It meets the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) standards numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12.  Not many people know what those numbers mean, but that’s a lot of standards!  The secret, however, is that Poetry Out Loud isn’t just good for students.  It’s good for me, too.  Here are some of the things that I’ve learned as a teacher of Poetry Out Loud.

There are many great poems and poets out there!  Happily, the ones at the beginning of the alphabet are no exception:  The last years of working with students who select their poems on line have left me quite fond of

“Abandoned Farmhouse”

“Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”


and “Adam’s Curse.”

I’ve also discovered some other great poems, some of which do not begin with the letter “A.”  One way I did that was by encouraging students to look at the pictures of the poets, and to browse for poems by clicking on poets who looked like interesting people.  Somehow the photos help students to get past get past

Chris Abani

Virginia Hamilton Adair

Kim Addonizio, and


Alphabetically or otherwise, I have found that working with students on Poetry Out Loud has been an exercise of discovery for me.  Every year, students select poems that are completely new to me, and I get to share the joy of getting acquainted with and learning about these poets and poems that I was previously ignorant about.  And I have found particular joy in exploring these poems with students who have learned them by heart, and who, through study and performance — and further study — and practice — have taken made their poems a part of themselves.

For some of you, the experience of watching this event may still leave you with a fundamental question:  Why do we do it?  My students often ask this question, and here is my best shot at answering it:

All study gives us knowledge, and we can get utility and joy from appreciating, knowing, and understanding things.  By knowing stuff, we are able to understand how the world works and, one would hope, we are able to predict how things are going to turn out.  Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions.  History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going.  The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does.  But what about Poetry?

I believe that Poetry is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans:  It shows us how people feel.  Poetry gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy or suffering.  For all the contestants out there, I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that my colleagues and I find in reading great Poems.  If at some point, you wonder at this mysterious person who Shakespeare compares to a summer’s day, that’s great.  If you suffer and laugh with Billy Collins at the death of Allegory, or if you feel the fear, the urgency, and sadness of Dylan Thomas as he exhorts his father not to Go Gentle Into That Good Night — That is, if you take the poets’ words into your own minds and hearts, and if you share what they feel — Well, you’re making yourself that much more of a complete human being.

I get a lot of joy out of my annual visit to Tallahassee.  It’s a long drive, but every year I encounter remarkable students who, by learning three poems by heart and sharing them with me, have enriched my life.  I look forward to my annual trip up here because I always encounter students who recite with power and conviction, and beauty.  And the memory of these performances can move me to tears, especially when I go back and re-read what they have shared with me and remember how they made me feel.

Watching this event always leaves me happy with the knowledge that students around the country are sharing in a celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you, parents, fellow teachers, judges, and everyone involved in today’s event for making this celebration possible.  For helping students to take the risk of sharing themselves with poetry and with us, and with each other.  I’m very happy to be part of this celebration.

Enjoy the rest of this party!


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Need a Writing Prompt for Friday? Try this one!

The last tool you’ll ever need!

Even the Swiss Army Knife doesn’t have one of these… or does it?

The products on display here (the Hutzler 571 Banana slicer and the Wenger GIANT Swiss Army Knife with 87 tools, for only $1400) invite sarcastic and often wildly funny product reviews from Amazon browsers and customers.  I discovered these reviews through a Facebook post, and after a little research, I’ve found that this sub-genre of satiric writing has been going on for quite some time.  The earliest compilation of these that I have found came from the blogger Hyojin, in Geek in Heels.   That was back in October of 2008.   Her post included product reviews that had been written as early as October 2006. published a compilation of these back in 2010.  Now, six years behind the curve, and fascinated and delighted by the humor that I can find on Amazon…Especially when it comes from my own students — as in this example:


If you haven’t read them yet, you have to check out the reviews — they gave my English classes the most laughs of anything I’ve tried with them all year, and I’ve spent hours perusing the 2500 different reviews of the banana slicer alone.  Within these reviews, there are also product forums, where “users”  “discuss” the products — and these conversations can be very funny.  Additionally, the reviews are subject to ratings (“How useful was this review to you?).  Some particularly funny reviews are rated thousands of times for their usefulness. 

If your students have Amazon accounts, they can publish product reviews (as my student did in the example above).   If they do, they will be interacting with a real community of very funny writers — and an extremely authentic audience.  Even if they don’t, the fake product reviews provide open lessons in irony and rhetorical humor for many different levels of student.

So if you need a Friday lesson, give it a try.


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Mash Up The Shakespeare!

Ludacris channels Othello?  Justin Timberlake in conversation with Desdemona?  Bob Marley meets the characters of Twelfth Night?  It all happened last week in my English classes, and students made it work.

I got the concept of mashed-up literature from Chris Shamburg, who has developed the idea and shared it with many teachers.   Chris keeps his students at the center of every lesson, letting them be “simultaneous consumers and creators” of media and Shakespeare.

Here it is:

Students picked a character, theme, or a scene from one of the Shakespeare plays that they have been studying, and then they found a song from their own music library that had lyrics that related to the segment they chose.

On their blogs, students posted the lines that they selected from Shakespeare alongside the lyrics of the song that they were using.  Then they mashed the two together.  I found that:

    1. Students chose their own texts, both from Shakespeare and from pop culture — So they tended to pick things that resonated with them.
    2. Students demonstrated understanding of the excerpts of the play that they selected.
    3. It was fun.

Here are some links:

Desdemona’s duet with Justin Timberlake on “Cry Me a River” 

Billy Joel’s “Pressure” comments on Othello’s emotions in Act III

Desdemona meets replies by Rhiana (taking Othello’s point of view).

Maroon 5 meets Othello

Bob Marley sings along with Sebastian, Viola, and Olivia in Twelfth Night

My model assignment

The more I do this kind of assignments with my students, the more I understand that the only way for students to understand engage with literature and language is to work with it themselves.  In order to GET Shakespeare, students have to DO Shakespeare.

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Students distracted by technology? Then teach better!

A good friend just shared a New York Times article about teachers struggling with technology. Or fighting against it. Or reluctantly using it to teach.

The weird thing about the article, in my opinion, was its title: “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say.”

The title has very little to do with the content of the story, which quotes teachers whining and fretting about students being disengaged from ideas in general and from their instruction. And they blame students’ lack of engagement on computers, video games, and phones.

But blaming technology won’t improve student learning. We teachers have to stop fighting the advancement of time and deal with a fact of life:

Our students have cell phones. Which are more interesting than we are.

20 years ago my students didn’t have these so-called “distractions,” so I was the only show in the room. Having no competition, I felt like a successful showman. Things have changed, now.

But I disagree with the idea that cell phones and computers have “reprogrammed” students to have shorter attention spans and demand “easy answers.” Instead, I think that school has been programming students to be dependent on teachers since 1900. Schools have cultivated dependency on teachers — For entertainment, for information, for laughs, for analysis, and for what’s on the test. Considering where my students were 20 years ago, I’m not surprised that they’re willing to switch from the old master (me) to their smart phones – which are better entertainers, and far superior purveyors of knowledge and information. They help with tests, too.

Someone in the article said that today’s students are more difficult to engage now, but when you do, they’re just as creative and ingenious as they ever were. I agree. In fact, I can see that finally, students have the tools that can make school lessons both personally relevant and publicly meaningful. Twenty years ago, they wrote essays for me. Now they can write those essays — or share ideas in thousands of other ways — with everyone in their class — and through the web, with an infinitely large audience.

But in order to engage students, teachers must disabuse themselves of the idea that students care about what the teacher knows.

Instead of giving students knowledge, teachers have to challenge students to master the material, then do something with it. When students’ daily task is to collaborate with others to build knowledge – and communicate that knowledge with others — then they get engaged. This idea, by the way, is OLD. John Dewey espoused it in the early part of the 20th century. Ted Sizer continued with it through the 70’s, 80,s and 90’s.

Nevertheless, it took me forever to begin to understand that teaching is not just about delivering the knowledge but about helping students to own, then work with that knowledge. And I can thank the smart phone for finally waking me up to this fact. I thank the smart phone because without it, I might still be convinced that I was living in the center of my students’ universe, filling their lives with meaning. I never was, and I never could. The phone doesn’t either, but it represents a chance to discover meaning.

So when a teacher interprets “using technology” to mean “incorporating gadgets into the delivery of content,” then “using technology” is an enormous waste of classroom time. I can make an iMovie for my students about The Odyssey – but why should they want to watch it? If THEY spend class creating building knowledge and making connections to The Odyssey, then the chances that they’ll learn and retain something improve.

When I’m at my best, I’m not doing flips and spins in front of a class. Instead, I’m guiding individuals as they make their own knowledge clear, so that they can communicate about it, collaborate with others, and create things that go beyond what’s already there. And when I forget — or fail to plan effectively — I find myself trying to do flips and spins in front of bored, disengaged students. I can tell because they’re playing with their phones. And I can’t blame them. After all, I do the same thing when I’m bored.

Technology doesn’t make me a better or worse teacher. It doesn’t make my students less attentive or more demanding. It has, however, begun to give that old paradigm of teacher-as-center-of-the-student-universe a final boot out the door. And the faster I can get it out of my classroom, the better.

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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — Using a Silent Scene. Thanks, Folger!

Today we experimented a little with video.  In order to understand the events of Act II, Scene 5 of Twelfth Night, I asked students to compose videos that captured the key events of the scene.  Here’s an example of what students were able to do in about 30 minutes (followed by an hour or so of learning i-movie and editing by me). I got the concept from the geniuses at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Thanks, Folger!

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